Archive for November, 2008

The Message

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Then one day you see you have a phone message. You punch in the numbers to retrieve it, and you hear your agent’s voice. Your heart staggers. “Hi, Craig,” she says, “I just had an interesting call from Simon…” and you stop breathing. This is it. It’s the moment. But wait: Is it a propitious time of the day? Should you hang up and kill a chicken and read its entrails to see if the auspices are good?

There are only two words she can say next. She can say yes, that the publisher likes it and wants to take it on. Or she can say no, that he just unearthed it under piles of other manuscripts, gave it a read, and decided to pass on it, thanks just the same. In the syllable-long pause, you feel yourself beginning to float. Whether you will continue ascending or thud back to earth hangs in the balance.

The message continues. “….and he was saying that he was feeling very ‘mea culpa’ about taking so long to get back to us about the book, but that he wanted….” Here you wrestle with a need to take the phone away from your ear so you can’t hear what you think must be bad news but in spite of your pusillanimous nature you let the rest of the message issue forth.

“…and he wants to make an offer on it, if we were still interested.”

You feel yourself soaring, you’ve become weightless, your smile is so wide you’d scare the Cheshire Cat, you listen to the message three or four more times, you’re swooning with gratitude.

You’ve sold another book. Buy drinks for the house. Strut your stuff. Wallow in self-congratulation. Celebrate as long as you can.

Because you know, even as you exult, that it may be first and ten just inside the red zone, but you’re not in the end zone yet.

Your agent tells you your publisher (“your publisher” is always a felicitous phrase) thinks that the manuscript is “pretty clean,” meaning he doesn’t want you to rewrite it from scratch, but to rewrite key parts that you thought were near-perfect. After a month or two or three during which you work out the terms of the contract, you meet the publisher for lunch to talk over the rewrite. Between bites of a sandwich, he wants to know what you think of the character of the mother.

You think she’s written just the way you intended, not so definite as to overwhelm the action, but sharp enough to leave an impression in the mind of a reader.

He agrees, but he has different notions. He has other notions about other sections, too.

The rewrite beat goes on for another month.  Finally, he reviews all the changes, pronounces it “almost there,” and passes it on to a junior editor, an enthusiastic young woman who suggests a new raft of changes. At last the book goes to the copyeditor, and you correct typos and inconsistencies. Then you get a request to do an illustration for the front matter, which goes through six, seven, maybe ten rounds of revision before it’s pronounced “perfect.”

When the advanced readers copies arrive, you hold the flimsy paperback in your hands, thinking, “Will this book come out before something horrible happens and the publisher decides to not go through with it?” You make scores of small changes throughout the text and send it back to your editor.

Two months later, a hefty box arrives, and there it is: your book in hardcover. Its cover pleases you. You turn it over and over in your hands. You sniff it. You read the jacket copy.

And then, before you can bring yourself to open it, to run your eyes over the creamy pages with the ranks of sentences you worked at like some kind of crazed blacksmith, heating them over and over and pounding and pounding and heating them again and again and reshaping each one over and over, two thoughts run through your mind:

Will it ever sell, and what will you work on next?

A Trickle of Angst

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

You package up the rewritten manuscript and send it back to your agent. Repeat waiting routine. Redouble angst. Days elapse, then weeks. You fidget. You try to write. You drive yourself (and your family) as nuts as you did when you were waiting for the response to the first draft (which is a misnomer in itself since before you sent it to your agent in the first place you’d gone through so many revisions and rewrites you lost track and half your mind).

But when she gets back to you, she wants more changes. This happens three more times over the span of seven months, including a gap over the holidays that stretches so long you finally give up and call her to which she responds, “I am so sorry. I was in the hospital for an operation. I’ll be back on track in no time.” Why didn’t she tell you? you wonder.  You could have sent a card and snuck in a query about her progress on the book.

But she gives you some hope. “I think it’s really close,” she says. “It’s really coming together.”

Your soaring ego does, however, have time to sink back to earth since you wait another few weeks for her to get her final changes to you.

“As soon as I get the manuscript back from you,” she says this time, “I’m sending it right out.”

You work feverishly. A few of the changes are simple typos. Others take more time. Finally, over the course of a few days when you steal as much time at work to make changes and when you spend each evening slashing through the manuscript pages, deciphering her queries through burning, red-rimmed eyes, you’re done.

The book goes back once more.  You try not to think of your publisher. You try not to wonder if he will like it, especially now, when it hasn’t even made it onto his desk.

The wait continues. As the clock continues to tick over the days and weeks, a trickle of angst returns.


Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

When you pick up the phone to discuss the novel with your agent, which is trembling more, your heart or your hand? At first you pass pleasantries. You try to detect from her tone of voice any clues about what she’ll say. Is she going to tell you she doesn’t think the book is right for her, isn’t “big” enough, that she’s cooled off on the idea, isn’t right for teens—all euphemisms for hating it, all euphemisms you’ve heard from other agents, other editors?

“So, let’s get started,” she says, and you listen to her run through the trouble spots she sees in the book, the characters she believes need more rounding out, the plot points that need sharpening. You spend the next three quarters of an hour concurring, wondering why you can’t refute anything she says, flogging yourself for not having seen the flaws she seems to have been equipped with a special radar to uncover. You jot page after page of notes that you realize usually do not contain verbs or subjects or some other integral element that renders them almost unintelligible.

She asks you a specific question about why you took the action in a certain direction, and your mind blanks, you can’t think of anything, you begin to believe that you’re an imposter, you’re not a writer at all, you didn’t even write this novel because you can’t defend it, and you can only blather on about why, inventing reasons that might not have anything to do with the book you wrote, until you trail off, and a silence hangs between you.

Then, as if she knows that you crave a crumb of praise, she saves you from total deflation by complimenting the development of a certain character, the description in a certain passage.

There is hope after all. She doesn’t hate the book. She just wants you to rewrite it—substantially rewrite it, but at least not junk it.

“I’ll send you the manuscript with my notes and a letter to follow up,” she says, and you hang up, the realization that you’ve moved ahead another place in this literary chess match dawning on you, even though you know the rewrite, and the rewrite after that, and on and on, have not yet begun.

You’ve passed the first hurdle. Why is it, then, that the trembling takes so long to subside? 

A View of Two Reviews

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

I always appreciate thoughtful reviews of my work. This one has some clear-eyed comments about Seaborn, and though I’d prefer seeing unqualified praise, I think the criticisms here make sense without damning the book.  I also like the mention of Wharf Rat Writes.

My publisher also sent the review below from over the summer that I hadn’t seen. Note the similar knock on the early part of the book. Overall, though, it’s a strong review, so I won’t dwell on the negative (though I suppose that’s part of my dour Scottish inclination).

Review of RB’s Seaborn in the August 2008 issue of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
R   Gr.5-9
After mom stomps out the door with a suitcase and no explanation, teenaged Luke is reluctant when his father insists that the two guys will go ahead with the annual family sailing trip. Alcohol and misery make Dad a poor sailing companion on the first day out, but a chance encounter with an old salt who had once sailed out to the Gulf Stream piques the father and son’s interest in doing something adventurous and wild, and the pair makes an ill-considered and undersupplied run of their own. Of course there’s an unexpected storm;  of course, Luke is left on his own to sail the catboat (broken engine, broken pumps, and a dismasted into the bargain); and of course, Luke survives his ordeal with new self-confidence and a more mature understanding of his parent’s marital problems. The setup is a pretty tide-worn and the outcome readily anticipated, but this is an adventure story rather that a domestic drama and, as such, must live or die by the nail-biting details. Thankfully, readers won’t be disappointed with Luke’s desperate efforts to keep his wits about him while he watches his food supply dwindle, fashions shaky rigging from a paddle, awning , and a drive belt, forces himself to awake through rough seas, and all the while blames himself fro Dad’s falling overboard (don’t worry, he’s rescued in time). This is a natural for a booktalk and a sure-fire quick pick. EB



Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

You’ve sent the manuscript on its way to your agent. You feel a sense of vertigo, but it passes. In the first week, you are elated. You can stop dwelling on every sentence, every piece of dialogue, every scene. A weight has been lifted. You allow yourself an extra glass of wine. Or two. Or maybe more.  Cheers to me, you think. You’ve finished another book.

About Day Six, the elation gives way to hollowness. You try to distract yourself. You pretend to start writing something new. You increase the amount of scribbling in your notebook. You write obsessively about the weather. Sometimes you succeed at writing a short short story. You do not send it out.

Over the first few weeks, you hold onto your faith in the novel. The book you have written is a wonderful piece of work. At times, you allow it to slip to the back of your mind as you work on your short short stories and read the books you’ve been wanting to read.

Then the third week rolls around and you succumb to the temptation to think about why she hasn’t called you. You tell yourself not to think about it. But you wonder what she thinks of it—your manuscript.  She hates the book. That’s the reason. You forgot to send the last five chapters. Could that be? No. You checked it twelve times before you sent it off.

She hates the book. She just doesn’t have the heart to tell you.

Then reason returns. She hasn’t talked to you because she hasn’t finished reading it. She’s incredibly busy. Would you want her to give it short shrift?

Another week or two or three and then another month elapse, and cycle repeats itself: calm, worry, frustration, worry, frustration, calm. You begin to devise stratagems to get her attention, perhaps sending her a note about a book you read that “touches on a bit of the emotion I depict in my novel,” but you don’t because you know how pathetically transparent a ploy it is.

Then one morning the message is waiting for you.

“I’d like to set up time to talk about Seaborn. Would you let me know some times that work for you?”

There’s no doubt. She hates it. The vertigo returns.